Friday, August 18, 2006

Does Party Affiliation Matter in State Races?

Cross posted at DailyKos

I ran across an ad for a State Representative candidate the other day in my local newspaper's online edition. I noticed right away that there was no party affiliation listed in the ad, just a nice picture, a few words and a link to his web site. His name is Charles Thomas (R) and he is running for a seat in the General Assembly representing North Carolina's 116th District.

I decided to ask if my suspicions were true, that he has been hiding the fact that he is a Republican, and wrote him an e-mail which generated the following excerpted exchanges. They include his Democratic opponent, Douglas Jones' comments along with a contribution from an Editor for a North Carolina local newspaper. What I discovered was pretty interesting I think. It turns out that both candidates for NC 116 were sticking to the same formula. DO NOT reveal party affiliation on your web site. I was shocked. So I did a little research on the subject and found that these two candidates seem to be shopping the 20% or so of voters identified as unaffiliated. It turns out there are more. My research was based on a simple metric. Could you identify the candidate's affiliation on their home page?

To me it seems that instead of denying your party affiliation, you would want to proudly wave your flag for all those unaffiliated voters to see. That, it seems, is not always the case. I think in this day and time it should be. You can see the research results and candidate links at the bottom of this diary.

The Salvo
Greetings. I've looked through the website and cannot find a party affiliation. These days that usually means the candidate is a Republican. Is this true? Sincerely, Randall

The reply
Randall,
I am indeed a Republican and I am not intentionally attempting to hide that fact (I was chairman of the party for 2 years).  However, I do want people to judge me based upon my platform first and party second. I hope this helps and feel free to contact me anytime.

My reply
Dear Charles,
Thanks for your reply. I've only got dial up so I haven't watched your
video yet, but thank you for your service to our country. I was a submarine sailor during Vietnam and am proud that I had the opportunity to serve my country during that time. My wife and I will have been married for 37 years this September. Her father was a Lt. Commander during WWII. My father served with the Army in the South Pacific during that war. We understand the sacrifice that service to our country involves and I so admire your and Amy's dedication in that arena.

That being said, I find it disturbing, especially considering your previous role in the party, that you aren't proud enough of that party to display the affiliation for all to see. I don't find any Democratic candidates that are not proud of their party, except maybe Joe Leiberman. You replied that you wanted people to look at your record and ideas first. This idea, that you might see as both noble and refreshing, is unfortunately naive and seemingly dishonest.

I vote a straight ticket usually. I do have an open mind however and am always looking for a reason to examine an individual candidate's qualifications, vision and motivation for seeking office. I admire your dedication to our region, our state and our country and I wish you and your family the very best. What I want to know is how ideologically bound you are to the President and his agenda and to the words of Mr. Cheney, Ann Coulter and their ilk.
Regards, Randall
emphasis mine post e-mail

I knew at this point that I wanted to blog this and that I should round out the picture by including the Democratic State Rep candidate from NC 116, Doug Jones (D). I went to the Jones web site only to find that he also did not mention party affiliation anywhere on his site. Boom. I felt like a total schmuck for accusing the Republican candidate Charles Thomas (R) of hiding his Republican affiliation just because it was Republican, only to find out that the Democratic candidate, Doug Jones was guilty of the same omission. I had cut off my own argument's legs through foolish supposition. Battered from my own non-researched words, I wrote the following to the Jones (D) campaign's Political Director, Bryan Freeborn.
Dear Bryan,
I can't find a party affiliation listed for Doug on the web site. I think this is a mistake. In fact, following an impulse, I wrote Charles Thomas Friday after seeing an ad for him in the Cit-Times. I had gone to his site because the ad didn't mention affiliation. Lo and behold, there was no party affiliation mentioned anywhere on the site.  I asked him about this and I was told he wanted people to see his platform first, and his party second. I found that to be disingenuous and told him so. I am still waiting for a second reply. I am writing a blog on this subject that I hope will be up later this week and would appreciate your take on this. I will be linking Doug's site as well. In my admittedly snarky way I made the statement that he must not be proud of his party enough to display the affiliation. Now today, as I go to Doug's site to gather information and links for the blog, I find that your campaign is doing the same thing. What gives? Is this SOP for State House seats? Like Party doesn't matter? I'm confused, but am admittedly rather new to focusing on state politics. I would appreciate some guidance here.
Cheers, Randall

I received a prompt reply from Bryan, and that was followed by a very nice and educational response from Doug (D)

Randall,
 Thanks for your comment.
 
In local races like this one, Party affiliation does seem to matter less than it would in a bigger race - say for US House or Senate.  And it can even be a distraction in a district like this one where 27% of the voters are unaffiliated, and where significant shares of the Ds and Rs split tickets.  My goal is to communicate with voters, and to the extent that Party affiliation (either D or R) can automatically turn off many voters, it becomes necessary to down-play partisanship generally. 

I have been going door to door throughout my district this summer, and have had only a handful of folks ask me about my party affiliation.  What they are more interested in is how, as the only public school teacher in the General Assembly, I'll be able to lead common sense, education reform efforts in our State.  They are also interested in my plan to guarantee affordable healthcare to all North Carolinians by 2008.
 
I really enjoy talking to folks on their door steps about their concerns, and I am glad that the conversation does not simply end with "so, what's your party?"

If you're interested in how and why candidates make these kinds of choices, I would be glad to talk with you.  Of course, I can only speak from my experience, but I imagine that the reasons I have indicated above would be widely echoed on both sides.
 
Regards, Doug Jones  

I followed with this reply.

Hi Doug,
Thanks for your well-reasoned response to my concerns. I would like to speak with you or continue along this line of communication concerning my understanding of how state office candidates make these decisions. What I find puzzling is not that you place affiliation down on your list of attributes, but that your web site doesn't mention it at all. I find this disturbing for several reasons. Here are some thoughts.
 
1. Be proud of your party. It is days like these that we need more separation of identity, not less. Sure, let the voters judge you on your merits and your ideas first. But at least give them a base from which to start. I for one, would find voting for a Republican repugnant unless the candidate was simply a whole lot better than the alternative. I have indeed done this on occasion.
2. Give your party the identity it deserves by linking other Democratic sites from your site. Only if we work together to support the kinds of initiatives that you are proposing can we expect to grow the community of ideas we are all seeking as we go into November.
3. Make your site a clearinghouse for Dems to organize around
4. Present to moderate republicans your vision and don't be ashamed to loudly denote the difference between the basic values of the parties. They are wide and deep.
5. And finally, Bryan said that there is a (D) or other identification of  affiliation on your bumper stickers and I assume yard signs. If it is there, I can't imagine why it is not on your site.
 
Thanks again for your time.  I'll be blogging on this subject later in the week after I garner some more responses from people and do further research into other state candidates' approach to the question of identifying party affiliation during a campaign. It will probably hit Thursday or Friday.
Kindest regards, Randall

As I was working through this and getting ready to reply to Doug (D), I realized that I had never actually sent my original reply to Charles (R). It was still sitting in my draft folder. Dorf! I decided to go ahead and send it but immediately followed with this.

Dear Charles, Please accept my apology. I was very wrong to assume that you were alone in hiding your party affiliation from your web site visitors. It was a dumb supposition. I looked at Doug Jones's site and guess what? No mention of the word "Democrat" over there. I complained to their campaign and received a prompt explanation that was somewhat acceptable, even though I didn't agree. .
Regards, Randall

To which he promptly replied

Randall,
Indeed.  I was going to point that out about Doug originally, however, I just didn’t feel that playing a “finger pointing” game was appropriate.  As time for the election nears, the party affiliation will become clear (at least on my end).  I applaud you on your effort to create a blog.  The intelligent free exchange of ideas is important.  As for Mr. Bush, I must say that I have been disappointed in a few things – particularly his stance on illegal immigration.  I do not consider myself ideologically bound by any particular party leader’s beliefs  If I can do anything to be of help to you in your endeavor to create the blog, please let me know. Sincere thanks to you and your family for your service to our nation. 
Charles C. Thomas
Emphasis mine

I thanked him.

Hi Charles, thanks for your helpful and gracious reply. I am learning quite a bit through my research and communication with various state candidates. I hope you at least find it useful to your decision making when deciding whether or not to display your party affiliation. I'll be in touch before I post my blog.


Last night as I was working on this, I found a great reference in an editorial published by the Wilson Daily that described the balance of power struggle as being between loss leaders. Will undecided voters be swayed away from Democrats because of the corruption surrounding the state Dem leadership or will they be swayed away by the Repub's addiction to the war? From the editorial:
North Carolina politicians are beginning to line up for the fall campaign, and the fulcrum for the 2006 legislative campaign may be Speaker of the House Jim Black. Although unindicted, Black looks like a lost cause after former Rep. Michael Decker pleaded guilty to fraud last week, admitting that he traded his party affiliation and his vote for $50,000 in campaign cash. His part of the bargain was to support a "particular candidate" for speaker of the House.

Given the unpopularity of the Iraq war and President Bush, Republicans anywhere on the ballot may be in for a rough ride in 2006.

If Republicans can shift voters' focus from President Bush to Speaker Black, they will have a chance at winning additional seats, maybe even a majority, in the General Assembly. How receptive voters are may depend on whether Black is indicted and on how things go in Iraq.

It's just amazing. We have somehow found ourselves in the position of defending democracy based on what's less repugnant. Well guess what? This war and everything attached, including the corruption that drives it, are a whole lot more repugnant than than the controversy over inter-party corruption that drives nothing more than quests for power in North Carolina state governance. I for one, think it is time for Democratic state candidates to step up to the plate and display where they are coming from. "Healthcare, lower taxes and a strong commitment to schools" just doesn't cut it any more.

After reading the editorial, I called the newspaper because I couldn't find the on-line editorial to link to and had a great conversation with Hal Tarleon, Wilson Daily's Opinion Editor. He told me that his paper published a piece this year that showed an increase of voters who identify themselves as unaffiliated. In response, I wrote him the following.

Hi Hal, thanks for the conversation and help today. I appreciate your insight into the non-affiliated status of so many voters and it gives me a much clearer look into why some candidates don't make their affiliation obvious.

Hal responded with this

Our 3/14/06 story on the rise of unaffiliated voters indicated unaffiliated now comprise almost 12 percent of registered voters. There are a lot of factors, but the main one is that unaffiliated can now participate in either party primary they choose. Our story showed the number of registered Democrats and Republicans had declined the past couple of years while unaffiliated registration had grown exponentially since 1990. You should be able to find the article in the archives of our Web site. Thanks.

As you can see, I received good feedback from all involved here. My only regret is that the Democratic candidate, Mr. Jones (D), did not care to, or was unable to, engage me further.

To affiliate or not, that is the question. To the candidates running for State Representative in NC 116, the answer is not. So what about the others? I found my research to be revealing in a troubling way. A larger percentage of Republicans with web sites, running for State Representative, were proud to list their party.

Of the 31 Democratic candidates with web sites, only 16% displayed party affiliation.

Of the 13 Republican candidates with web sites, 61% displayed party affiliation.


And on top of that, the quality of the Republican web sites was generally much better than the quality of the Democratic sites. Very disappointing.

I think Democrats are missing a golden opportunity here. They should change their policy and proudly announce that they are Democrats. And they should get better websites! Thanks for following me on this convoluted journey. If I've learned anything from this little project, it is that pride in Democratic Party identity and thus its principles is sorely missing from the community of candidates that are running for office on November 7th in the great state of North Carolina.


NC HOUSE

Dems (via NC Dem Website)

Van Braxton - No; Alice Graham Underhill - Yes; Marian McLawhorn - No; Carnell Taylor - No; Larry D. Hall - Yes; Allen Dameron - No; Grier Martin - No; Jennifer Weiss - No; Greer Beatty - No; Ed Ridpath - No; Deborah Ross - No; Linda Coleman - No; Margaret Dickson - No; Rick Glazier - No; Lucy T. Allen - No; Bill Faison - No; Joe Hackney - No; Pricey Harrison - No; Maggie Jeffus - No; Alice Bordsen - No; Chuck Aldridge - No; Ray Warren - No; Ed Gambill - No; Cullie Tarleton - Yes; Judith Barlow Porter - No; Everett Passaly - No; Betsy Fonvielle - No; Marvin Eddie Wyatt - No; Susan Fisher - Yes; Doug Jones - No; Phil Haire - Yes.
________

Repub. (via NC Rep. website) - Much Slicker Sites

Joel Raupe - Yes; Michael Speciale - Yes; Rick Kaiser - Yes; Kyle Jones - No; Tony Moore - No; Ray Starling - Yes; Stephen LaRoque - Yes; Pat McElraft - No; Carolyn Justice - Yes; J.H. Ross - Yes; John Blackwell - Yes; Marilyn Avila - No; Joe Boylan - No; Alvin Reed - No (but especially scary); Jim Rumley - No; Susan Morris - Yes; Thom Tillis - Yes; Hal Jordan - Yes; Debbie Clary - Yes; Mike Harrison - No; Charles Thomas - No

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